Play It As It Lays

I have to confess that “messy woman” novels are generally not my favorites. I don’t need women protagonists to have it all together, but I’m kind of bored with stories that are all about women being self-destructive. Some such novels can grab me (I still think about Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky), but I’m mostly not that interested. And, as it turns out, I feel the same even when the book is a classic.

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion is a classic messy woman novel. The novel’s main character is Maria Wyeth, an actress whose marriage and career are collapsing. She copes by drinking and having sex and doing whatever she can to forget. Particularly difficult for her is her young daughter’s disability, which has led to her being institutionalized. Maria visits her regularly but hungers for more contact, more time.

I might not have stuck with this book were it not by Joan Didion, whose nonfiction writing I admire, and if it weren’t such a short book. Most of the story is told in fragments, sometimes little moments that take up less than a page. The style feels very contemporary. It also does the thing that I’m finding more common in recent novels in that it requires readers to read between the lines to understand what’s actually happening. When I read the Wikipedia summary of the novel, I realized that I missed significant plot points, and when I looked back to the book, I still didn’t think it was clear enough. I don’t need my hand held for every bit of a story, and I confess I sometimes read too quickly when I’m losing interest in a book, but I still prize clarity and get frustrated when plot points are hidden even when you go looking. Sometimes a little telling is a good thing.

All that said, I did like how Didion showed that the stakes for women who are struggling are so much higher than for men and the judgment so much harsher. The men around Maria are pretty terrible, but they (mostly) get away with it. The fact that Maria is so scrutinized for every little thing she does makes her mistakes much more serious, which then leads her to make even more mistakes. This is also the second novel I’ve read in the last few months that involves an illegal abortion. (The other was The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann.) In both cases, the fact that abortion was against the law didn’t change these women’s decisions, but when things didn’t go well, they couldn’t easily get the help they needed.

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Lexicon by Max Barry is a near-future thriller in which talented individuals known as poets are able to use special nonsense words to force people to submit to their will. Aspiring poets are trained at a special school where they learn to identify what “segment” a person belongs to, which will then tell them the words that can govern them. Upon graduation, the poets are given a new name (Eliot, Bronte, Lowell) and assigned their new duties.

Emily is identified as a candidate for the school when its scouts spot her scamming people with a card game on the street. But the school is not exactly easy for Emily, as she’s not especially inclined to follow rules she doesn’t understand. In the meantime, the novel is also following the story of a man named Wil who escaped some sort of disaster at a remote Australian town and who appears to be immune from the poets’ words. Clips of news stories and message board posts that appear between the chapters show that the disaster is just one of many strange occurrences that the general public and news media cannot comprehend. Part of the driving action of the book is seeing just how vast the conspiracy behind the poets’ network is.

I was really into this book to start. It has an intriguing premise, and I enjoyed the process of piecing together how Emily and Wil’s stories linked together. I sometimes think I’m more interested in the set-up than anything else when it comes to these kinds of books, and this set-up is clever enough. And I think Barry is onto something interesting and relevant when he talks about segmentation and finding the right words for the right audience in order to control them. That is, after all, how social media algorithms work. But he doesn’t really do much with this premise. The words are more like magic tricks than actual persuasion, and the effect more like hypnosis than bending of a person’s thinking.

The plot structure similarly doesn’t quite deliver on its promise, I think partly because it collapses under its own weight as the two threads come together. I liked the way the two stories linked and the gradual unveiling of their relationship, but toward the end, it started to get too difficult to know where the characters were in the story. Some of the difficulty was intentional, I’m sure, meant to create more twists, and it was satisfying to find out that things that didn’t feel right in fact weren’t right because of where we actually were in the story. But I’m not all that interested in those kinds of twists. I’d rather have a clearer understanding of where the characters are in their journey.

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The Fell

When I came across this new novella by Sarah Moss at the library last week, I was surprised. It seems like Summerwater only came out a couple of months ago. But, in fact, it’s been a couple of years, and her books are often very short, so it should be no surprise to see a new one every year or two.

The Fell is very much a book of the moment, in that it’s set during the pandemic, at a time when strict lockdowns were in place in the UK for people who’d been exposed to the virus. And Kate, a hippy-type single mom who works in a cafe, has been exposed, forcing her and her teenage son Matt to confine themselves to their home and garden. But then Kate decides she just can’t handle it any more, so she goes for a walk. It shouldn’t be a big deal. The paths are generally pretty secluded, and the outdoors are safe. Except that there’s also a risk of falling.

The novel follows Kate and Matt’s thoughts during the hours before and during Kate’s disappearance. Also featured is their elderly neighbor Alice, who bakes cookies but worries about how to share them safely, as well as Rob, the search and rescue volunteer who’s called out to find Kate. For all these characters, their present circumstances — both the pandemic and Kate’s disappearance — become a reason to consider why they live their lives as they do and what a good life should look like. The kind of thinking the pandemic sparked in a lot of people. They’re especially caught in thoughts about their relationship between themselves and the world, with the tension between independence and dependence, isolation and community. All the stuff the pandemic raised, but stuff that’s always bubbling in the background, whether we notice it or not.

I was especially struck by this, from one of Alice’s musing about the solitude brought on by the pandemic:

There’s nothing she can do, she reminds herself, which could be the motto of the last six months, and the way things are looking also the next six months, and who knows about the six months after that. A person can doubtless live like this indefinitely, the background murmur of dread only a little louder week by week, month by month — well, that’s obvious, isn’t it, people don’t die of dread, nor even imprisonment, or at least they do but not directly from being shut away, from lack of access to healthcare and poor diet and suicide and many of the reason that put them there in the first place, shame on her for comparing her comfy house, mortgage paid off, with her kind neighbors and her garden, to a prison.

So much about this. The background murmur of dread. I feel like I hear that a lot. But I also feel the guilt about complaining because I know, all things considered, I’m fortunate. But still … that murmur of dread.

I think this book is kind of about going on with life with that dread there, a raven watching over us and taunting us as we linger in our own pain, lost on our own hillsides. But maybe it’s also keeping us awake and ready to respond when there’s something we can do.

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The Reluctant Widow

As this novel by Georgette Heyer opens, Elinor Rochdale is on her way to a new position as a governess, a position she was forced to take up because the various scandals surrounding her father’s death left her without any other resources. But a mix-up at the coach station puts her in an entirely different and unexpected position. It turns out that a gentleman named Ned Carlyon had advertised for a young woman to come a marry his cousin, Eustace Cheviot, and Elinor ends up at Mr. Cheviot’s estate.

Elinor, quite sensibly, recognizes that Ned’s plan to marry off his cousin to a stranger is ridiculous, but when Eustace gets into what appears to be a fatal fight, she decides, in spite of herself, that marrying this stranger who will die within hours, might not be such a bad thing to do. So, overnight, she is married and widowed and becomes the owner of a large, but crumbling estate.

The whole premise of the novel is, of course, ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun. Most of the plot involves Elinor trying to figure out the various plots surrounding her new property. There are a couple of break-ins, some gunfire, a hidden staircase, and possible spies for Napoleon. I had a good time with it overall, although the story did start to get repetitive after a while. And the resolution of the spy plot struck me as kind of odd, with family reputation being prized as much as actual justice and victory over France.

The book’s primary weakness is the romance itself. Elinor and Ned have a bantering sort of relationship that is clearly meant to indicate romantic chemistry, but there’s no sense that either of them sees the other as a potential love interest until the very end of the book. Ned’s brother Nicky gets a lot more attention in the story, as does Nicky’s dog, Bouncer. The Elinor/Bouncer relationship is by far the most interesting in the book.

So, on the whole, not top-tier Heyer, but amusing enough. Of the five Heyer novels I’ve read, I think Cotillion and A Civil Contract are at the top of the heap. This would sit in the middle, ahead of The Toll-Gate and Charity Girl. I have Sylvester on my shelf to read at some point and am always interested to hear what other people’s favorites are!

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I loved Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This when I read it last year, and that love led me to pick up her much-praised memoir Priestdaddy. It didn’t park itself in my brain and start transforming it the way No One Is Talking About This did. Sometimes it even got on my nerves. But there are also some lovely moments.

Lockwood builds her memoir around a period when she and her husband were having financial difficulties and had to move in with her parents. As the title indicates, Lockwood’s father is a priest, in this case a Roman Catholic priest. He converted to Catholicism after marrying and having children and because one of a just over 100 married Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. This meant that Lockwood and her siblings lived in a church rectory, surrounded by seminarians preparing to become priests.

Lockwood uses incidents from the period living with her parents as springboards to send her back into memories from her childhood. For the most part, she takes a humorous tone, leaving readers to decide for themselves just how messed up things like her father’s obsession with guns and tendency to wear only boxer shorts around the house actually were. And then, every now and then, some reference to darker incidents, including sexual assault, will pop up, startling the reader into recognizing that her story is not just wacky hijinks in an eccentric household.

I appreciated, though, that Lockwood mostly left readers to decide for themselves about her father. He’s clearly not great at being a dad, and some of his actions are outright cruel. But you get the sense that Lockwood never wants to deny his place as her dad, part of who she is. And this feeling seems to run parallel to her feelings about God, who she no longer believes in, but can’t wholly forget. Here, she writes about how her belief faded:

I did not forget so much as turn it inside out, repurpose it, and occasionally use it to tell jokes like “Jesus is SUCH a manger babe” and “God got so many abs that he look like a corncob.” People do sometimes accuse me of blasphemy, which is understandable, and which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It is my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be fine. The word “God” does not fall out of the vocabulary, as the sun does not fall out of the sky; the shapes of the stories remain, as do their revelations. I was never fluent in tongues when it mattered, but when I am left to myself, out come all the old worshipped words, those fondled verses tumbling on verses, onto the page which can hold and forgive them.

There’s a lot in this book that I liked, such as the passage above. Lockwood has a vivid voice. But I sometimes lost patience with the book as a whole. Her jokey voice is a little too much at times, and as much as I appreciated her non-judgmental stance and willingness to let readers read between the lines, I sometimes wanted just a little more explanation for what was happening. And it reads more like an essay collection than a narrative, which isn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t something I expected, so it took me a while to fall into what the book is doing.

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Thelonious Monk Ellison, the narrator of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, writes obscure, but well-reviewed novels that draw on classical history, and he gives talks at academic conferences that even his colleagues can’t really follow. What he doesn’t do is write about race. He remains steadfast in this even when he knows that it could be an easier ticket to literary fame for him, as a Black man, than the more esoteric and avant-garde path that he’s chosen. And he doesn’t think much of the kinds of novels by and about Black people that seem to have captured the public’s imagination, most recently a novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto by a Black woman who, much like Monk himself, has no actual experience with the ghetto.

Monk’s actual experiences wouldn’t necessarily provide much fodder for publishers looking for stories about race. His family has struggles, but they’re not the kinds of struggles in books like We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. Monk has recently come home to Washington DC, initially for an academic conference, but then to take care of his elderly mother as her dementia progresses. His brother is dealing with the breakup of his marriage after he came out as gay. And his sister must make her way through a line of anti-abortion protestors as she goes to work at her clinic. The struggles are real, but they’re not likely to be conveyed in bad dialect in narrative fueled by sex and violence. 

But, then, eventually, in a fit of frustration, Monk gives in. He writes the book he thinks publishers and the literary community want. He titles it My Pafology and sends it to his agent, almost as a joke, and his agent sends it to publishers under a pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh. And you can imagine where it goes from there. It’s a pretty hilarious send-up of what white culture expects and wants from Black artists.

As I read, I had to wonder how much of this book — and the book within the book — draws on Everett’s own experience as a Black author. This is the fourth of his books that I’ve read, and the first two that I read — So Much Blue and Telephone — aren’t really about race. It wouldn’t make any sense to shelve them in an African-American section of a bookstore, something Monk complains about booksellers doing with his books, thus preventing him from finding the audience that wants what he writes. (Some of Everett’s other books more directly discuss race. It’s just that I happened to start with the books that don’t.)

I also had to wonder if I’m part of the problem that Everett is lampooning here. Does it mean anything that The Trees, a satire about lynching, is my favorite of his books? Certainly The Trees is doing something much more sophisticated than Ma Pafology or We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. (For one basic thing, only the white characters in The Trees speak in a ridiculous dialect.) But are there other books I’ve lauded because they seemed “raw” and “real” when they’re no more real than the books Everett is mocking here. I think it’s a question worth asking! And it’s impossible to read Erasure without asking it.

The more of Everett’s books I read, the more I like his writing and the more I want to read. Anyone have a favorite to recommend?

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The Watsons

The Watsons is an unfinished novel by Jane Austen, just a few chapters long. There’s basically enough to give readers a sense of who the players are and what some of the crucial relationships are likely to be. The central character is Emma Watson, who has lived for years with a wealthy aunt but has now returned to her immediate family. Emma is a little out of the loop about everything, and so her sister Elizabeth gives her the lay of the social landscape before she attends a local. There, she meets some of the neighbors, and Emma forms her own opinions of them — and they of her.

Already some love triangles are quadrangles are emerging. The flirtatious Tom Musgrave seems to be taking an interest in Emma, and Emma is more intrigued by the vicar Mr. Howard. Adding to the drama is a visit from Emma’s brother Robert and his obnoxious wife.

There’s a lot of potential in this set-up, and it seems pretty clear how some of the threads will be resolved. But, with Austen, the pleasure is in the journey, and her characters’ lives often take unexpected turns on their way to the seemingly inevitable conclusion. In this case, Austen chose to give up on the book. I would say that it’s too bad that she didn’t continue the story, but a promising start isn’t a guarantee of a good final result, and if she’d lost interest in it, perhaps it wouldn’t have turned out well. But I’m greedy for more Austen, and for that reason, I wish this one had worked out.

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The Bird’s Nest

In my continuing effort to read more, often lesser-known books by authors I love, I read Shirley Jackson’s 1954 novel, The Bird’s Nest earlier this month. It’s not bad, but I think it’s the weakest of the Jackson novels I’ve read. I can see why it’s not talked about that much.

The book tells the story of Elizabeth Richmond, a rather bland young woman who lives with her aunt and does administrative work in a museum. She gets backaches and headaches and sometimes finds herself in situations she doesn’t understand. For instance, she finds handwritten letters written to her, filled with insults and threats, and she has no idea where they come from. Concerned about some of Elizabeth’s odd behavior, her Aunt Morgan insists she see a psychiatrist, who uncovers that she has multiple personalities, and one of these personalities is the source of the notes and of Elizabeth’s strange behavior.

The story is told from the perspective of Elizabeth, her doctor, Betsy (her most childish and mischievous personality), and her aunt. Each of these narrators is bewildered about what is happening, in one way or another, but as each voice takes over, the readers gets more of a sense of what is happening. I especially liked seeing the contentious relationship between Dr. Wright and Betsy develop into a sort of begrudging partnership, as they grow to understand each other’s motives. And the sense of menace whenever Elizabeth/Betsy/Lizzie/Bess etc. ends up in a new situation kept my interest the whole time.

I’ve now read all of Jackson’s novels, except her first, The Road through the Wall. And despite the dark strangeness of the book’s premise, The Bird’s Nest feels kind of bland in comparison to the others. It doesn’t lean as hard into its own weirdness as Jackson’s other novels. It tells the story well, and the story is an interesting one, but it doesn’t take the extra step to really blow my mind.

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You see, I built the house with my own hands. But Settler Williams slept in it and I would sleep outside on the veranda. I tended the estates that spread around the house for miles, But it was Settler Williams who took home the harvest. I was left to pick anything he might have left behind, I worked all the time machine and in all the industries, but it was Settler Williams who would take the profits to the bank and I would end up with the sent that he flung my way. I was sure that you already know all this. I produced everything on that farm with my own labour. But al the gains went to Settler Williams. What a world! A world in which the tailor wears rags, the tiller eats wild berries, the build begs for shelter. One morning I woke up from the deep sleep of man years, and I said to him: Settler Williams, you who eat what another has sown, hear now the sound of the trumpet and the sound of the horn of justice. The tailor demands his clothes, the tiller his land, the worker the produce of his sweat. The builder wants his house back. Get out of my house. You have hands of your own, you cruel and greedy one. Go build your own! Who deceived you into thinking that the builder has no eyes, no head and no tongue?

Wow. These are the words of Matigari, the protagonist of this novella by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Matigari has just returned home after defeating Settler Williams, and he’s seeking his people, with the intent of helping them peacefully live into their freedom.

Sadly, however, he finds that his freedom struggle for decades hasn’t led to much. Children are in poverty, women are sexually harassed, police are brutal, and workers are exploited. Matigari goes from one place to another, seeking both to gather his people and to find answers as to why the world remains as it is. As he continues on his way, a mythology develops around him, and he becomes perceived as a saint who can liberate his people. Of course, this also makes him a target.

The book is confrontational, as you can see from the speech above. It is clear about the injustice of colonialism — and, indeed, of any system that relies on oppression to function. As the world of the novel expands, the number of people implicated grows as well. There’s an all-too-resonant scene at the Ministry of Truth and Justice (which is, of course, neither truthful nor just), where the court turns to scholars in the field of “Parrotology” to show that the teachers of Marxism are ruining students and workers and thus should be detained without trial. Meanwhile, the people are hearing more stories of Matigari and rising up to claim their freedom. But will it be possible to do so peacefully.

There are a lot of resonant moments in this book. I’m sure there are nuances that I missed, not being familiar with Kenyan history. But the book functions as a fable about oppression, and, as such, it works without a full understanding of the historical details. Oppression often follows particular patterns, and those patterns that are evident in this book appear not just in Kenya but all over the world, including in the United States.

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A Spindle Splintered

Short books seem to be the answer for my recent inability to focus on my reading for very long. I don’t have to hold all the elements of the plot in my head for days upon days, just a few days, or even a few hours, as was the case with Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered, which I got through in a single evening.

The main character in this fractured retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story is Zinnia Gray. Zinnia is preparing to turn 21 and also preparing to die as the rare illness she’s had since childhood is eating up her internal organs. She’s always loved the Sleeping Beauty story — she’s even studied its various iterations in college — so her best friend Charm decides to immerse her in the fairy tale, bringing her to a tower with a spinning wheel and a cozy bed. But then the story ends up becoming more real than Zinnia or Charm intended.

I often enjoy clever retellings of fairy tales, and this was a good one. I liked how Harrow explored the appeal of this particular fairy tale and shed new light on it. For example, what kind of life would Princess Aurora have if she weren’t forced into an enchanted sleep? Can a curse also be a blessing? And how do various tales reflect their times?

This book very much reflects our current times. Zinnia and Charm use lots of pop culture references and shorthand that are very much the language of a certain kind of very online and aware young person. (There’s a reference to not talking about “Jo” anymore when a “portkey” is mentioned as a way to get out of a fantasy world.) This is not a complaint! But it did get me thinking about the difference between books for right now and books for always. 

I think there’s a tendency to assume that the best books are those that can exist outside their particular contexts. That if the references in a book are “dated,” then the book is inferior. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It may be that the book is not eternal, but not every book needs to be. Few books have spoken to me in the last couple of years as strongly as Patricia Lockwood’s No One Else Is Talking About This. It captured so perfectly what it feels like to spend a lot of time on Twitter and what is both enjoyable and unsatisfying about it. It wore new grooves into my brain about my own social media use. I cannot deny its power or Lockwood’s skill in wielding that power. At the same time, I think it’s entirely possible than in 10 years, the book will be entirely incomprehensible to people who don’t have clear memories of this moment.

Placing a book in its moment is not a bad thing to do, nor is pitching a book to a particular (even if limited) audience. Not everything needs to be for everybody, and if a book is most likely to resonate strongly with a limited group of people at a specific time, that’s ok. In fact, I think A Spindle Splintered is specifically about how stories evolve and how they don’t. There are aspects of any story that are best understood in their specific context. And there are pieces of those stories that can echo across time. But timelessness in and of itself need not be the only mark of a good story.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments